LMU-Alumnus David Ranftl: Beyond the usual – A fan of fans

25 Oct 2021

Art historian and LMU alumnus David Ranftl sees hand fans as a mirror of the society of their day. He bought his first one at the age of 13 – and made fans the subject of his master’s thesis at LMU in 2013.

A fan of fans: David Ranftl

Hand fans are an unusual hobby. How did you get started?

David Ranftl: By chance. My parents are collectors, too, so we often visited antique markets. I bought my first fan while doing the rounds at one of these events: a wooden hand fan for dancing lessons from the 1920s. The dance partners immortalized themselves on it with witty rhymes arranged like a poetry album.

What rhymes?

One example is: “He who loves not wine, women and song will stay a fool his whole life long!” Some of the rhymes were written in the old German sütterlin script, which is why I wanted the fan. I was 13 and had just learnt sütterlin so that I could read a couple of manuscripts from the family. The fan was intended for use in practice sessions. It only cost a few marks. Back then, you could still find proper little gems at flea markets! I later came across an antique volume about hand fans, and that was what really got me started. I realized that they were of tremendous significance in art and cultural history. Their story goes back to the earliest days of humankind, when fronds were used to drive insects away. Later, they became bearers of images, with all kinds of different designs and decorations used to fulfill varying functions. In the days of the French Revolution, for example, current political developments were depicted on them. Hand fans thus became a news medium. There were royalist fans bearing the likeness of Louis XVI. But you could only see the portrait if you held the whole fan up to the light. Clearly, fans have always had to do with sleight of hand, now revealing the suggestive and now concealing it.

Why was fanning oneself so commonplace?

Because the ladies were laced up tightly – and because hundreds of candles would be burning in the ballrooms. Fans kept you cool. In the 18th century, a ‘fan language’ then emerged as a vehicle of non-verbal communication. Hidden messages were shared as the sexes flirted with each other. A fan was definitely a must-have: No one would so much as leave the house without one. “A lady without a fan is like a gentleman without a dagger,” so the saying went. The skeletons were made of wood, ivory, tortoise shell and mother-or-pearl; the leaves might be crafted from parchment, paper or silk; and some of the guards were fitted with gemstones and decorated with gold. Mythological and biblical depictions adorned them. Bucolic outdoor games were another dominant theme. Each and every development in artistic styles was immediately mirrored in the fans of the day. The 18th century is regarded as their golden age, while new duplication methods such as lithography made them available to the masses a century later.

These days, plastic fans for tourists are almost the only ones anyone still knows.

Yes, disposable products, though they are also an advertising medium. You still find fans in haute coûture, though. And manufactories in Spain and Paris still craft fans that can cost several thousand euros.

Does it sadden you that fans – like hats – have largely disappeared from view?

That is the way it is with things that possess a certain elegance: For many people, they are not sufficiently practical.

…which is not a view that you share?

I attach great importance to the quality of things. I look at the craftmanship that went into making them. I love wearing dress handkerchiefs, ties, lapel pins, cuff links, a flower in my buttonhole. Men, too, can be a little decorative in what they wear. Even during the pandemic, I still occasionally made the effort and wore a blazer.

Do you yourself use a hand fan?

Extremely rarely. But when I wear a tuxedo, I do indeed occasionally have a very plain wooden fan with a black fabric covering up my sleeve – something you can offer to a lady if she needs one.

And how do the ladies react?

With positive surprise.

When is a fan especially fascinating for you?

When it is of a high artistic quality and has an interesting story that can be unraveled. For an art historian like myself, this is a lovely field of research – all the more so as it is my passion.

You also collect them. What makes someone a collector?

Collectors enjoy surrounding themselves with beautiful things. They have an eye for such things. But every collector is different, and no two collections are alike. You can see whether the eye of an expert went into a collection – or whether someone just pieced together what they could afford. But even the latter kind of collection can still be very interesting.

What does your collection reflect?

My intention was to display the entire evolution of the fan. But there came a point when I said to myself: You don’t have to have everything.

People distinguish between gatherers and hunters. But there is a hunter in every gatherer, isn’t there?

There is indeed!

What are the moments you enjoy most when collecting?

When you are traveling somewhere and step into a little shop, have a look around and, somewhere in a back corner, you find a box containing a hand fan that maybe even has something special about it – and when you then agree on a price! Or when something turns up completely unexpectedly in an auction catalogue. Or when you can suddenly afford something that used to be beyond your means. Those are moments of supreme happiness.

How many fans have you already acquired?

So many that I could use a different one every day of the year.

And will you continue to collect them? I certainly will. It is a bit of an addiction, after all. In some people it intensifies, in others it weakens, or gets supplanted by another area of collection. I intend to carry on.

What are you looking for?